Rather than address these needs in free agency, the Steelers will turn to the NFL draft. Here they will look to build upon their recent success in finding players who can contribute right away.
In the past, the Steelers have taken their time in developing young players. Rather than throw a rookie into the fire, they would use a veteran as a stopgap to keep the seat warm until the rookie was ready to go.
In fact, between 2000 and 2009, the Steelers only had seven players start at least eight games as a rookie. Five of them—Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, Casey Hampton, Kendrell Bell and Kendall Simmons—were drafted between 2000 and 2002.
This philosophy changed in 2010 when Art Rooney II told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he wanted more contributions from young players:
I do think that one of the things we have to do is probably get better at developing our younger players. That's something we have to think about and make sure we're doing what we need to do to have guys being able to step in maybe a little earlier. And over the next year or two, there's no question we have some age on the defense and there's going to be some turnover
Since then, the Steelers have had 12 players contribute at least one start as a rookie. This included four players who earned this distinction in 2012 and five in 2013
Jarvis Jones, Le’Veon Bell and Vince Williams led the way, all earning at least eight starts last season. To put this in perspective, the Steelers hadn’t had multiple rookie starters on their defense since Hampton and Bell in 2001.
With 22 free agents, the Steelers will have plenty of work to do come draft day. Not only do they need to add depth, but also find a player or two capable of stepping into the starting lineup.
As nice as it would be to add Jake Matthews, Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson or Sammy Watkins to the mix, they are unlikely to fall outside of the top 10. With that said, here are seven realistic players who could immediately start for the Steelers.
The Steelers had some problems at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons last season. Larry Foote was lost for the season with a biceps injury, and Vince Williams only demonstrated that he could be a two-down player as a rookie.
Finding a three-down player to play on the inside alongside Timmons should be a priority for the Steelers. C.J. Mosley would be a near-perfect fit for that role.
Mosley was a leader on Alabama’s dominating defense. At 6’2” and 232 pounds, he has the size necessary to step up in run defense yet the speed to drop into coverage. It is his ability in coverage that projects him as a three-down linebacker in the NFL.
Playing under Nick Saban, Mosley is well-versed in the 3-4 defense. His football IQ is one of his strengths, according to CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang.
Mosley’s instincts and athleticism would make him a perfect fit on the inside of Pittsburgh’s defense. He would help provide an instant impact for one of the weakest areas on the defense.
Unlike some positions, teams can find quality inside linebackers later in the draft. That is exactly what Chris Borland would provide the Steelers.
Borland is an undersized linebacker at 6’0” and 245 pounds, but that did not limit his production while at Wisconsin. Over his career, he had 420 tackles and 17 sacks, including 111 tackles and four sacks last season.
Bob Wolfley of the Journal Sentinel reported that Borland improved his draft stock at the Senior Bowl. This was in part due to his instincts and awareness as a defender.
Borland may not be a “sexy” pick, but he gets the job done and would provide valuable leadership on the defensive side of the ball. He has a higher upside than Vince Williams and should be able to come to the Steelers as plug-and-play linebacker. However, the Steelers will have to hope that he is still available in the third round.
Not long ago, the Steelers had a trio of young receivers who looked to be the foundation of their offense for years. However, Mike Wallace signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins and Emmanuel Sanders is not expected to return. He is already drawing interest from the New York Jets, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.
Besides Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery is a free agent and Markus Wheaton is coming off a rookie season in which he had only six receptions. The lack of depth and uncertainty makes a wide receiver a potential priority in the draft.
General manager Kevin Colbert has never shied away from drafting wide receivers. Since taking over Pittsburgh’s front office in 2000, he has drafted 16 wide receivers. Eight of these have been selected within the first three rounds, including two first-round selections.
Marqise Lee fits the mold of what the Steelers like in a receiver. He is not particularly big at 6’0” and 195 pounds, but has good speed and can be an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands. Rotoworld’s Greg Peshek found Lee was very good after the catch:
Nearly 43% of Marqise Lee’s receptions came on short breaking in/out routes designed to put him in a position to gain yardage after the catch. I’m personally a bit surprised by the lack of post/corner/slants that have seemed to factor more heavily into USC’s past offenses.
Lee was very productive in this style of offense. In his three years at USC, Lee averaged nearly 83 receptions for 1,218 yards and 10 touchdowns per season. He would fit well with what the Steelers do on offense under Todd Haley.
One scout even believes that Lee will be a top-10 pick, according to Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel.
A receiving trio of Brown, Wheaton and Lee would give Ben Roethlisberger three fast options who are dangerous after the catch. That is exactly what the Steelers need as they continue to develop the no-huddle offense.
Though the probability of the Steelers taking yet another offensive lineman high in the draft may not be likely, if they do, they will have a strong chance of starting.
Marcus Gilbert was by no means dominant at right tackle, and Kelvin Beachum lacks the ideal size for a left tackle. Then there is Mike Adams, who had a disastrous second year after being named Steelers’ top rookie in 2012.
Cyrus Kouandjio would be one of the top options who could be available for the Steelers. Unlike some of the current tackles on Pittsburgh’s roster, Kouandjio is a lean 6’5” and 310-pound frame with only 16 percent body fat.
New offensive line coach Mike Munchak may want his own man to secure the tackle spot. Kouandjio has the strength and athleticism to be a top tackle in the league and would have an excellent coach to develop his technique.
It may not be likely for the Steelers to take another lineman early in the draft, but if they, do you can almost be certain that they will earn a starting job.
The Steelers used to make their opponents one-dimensional by shutting down the run. That wasn’t the case in 2013 when their defense finished 21st against the run. Part of this may have been the absence of a dominant 0-technique nose tackle.
Steve McLendon took over as the starter last season, but he only played in 33 percent of the defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. As a result, it is hard to blame him for the poor run defense.
However, as Casey Hampton showed between 2001 and 2013, a dominant nose tackle means a lot for Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense. Louis Nix has the potential to be that type of nose tackle.
Nix plays one of the few positions that a player can come in and start as a rookie. He has prototypical size to be a dominant run-stopper at 6’2” and 345 pounds. For a man his size, he also moves very well.
Besides his ability to defend against the run, Nix could also eat up blockers to free up lanes for the linebackers to rush the quarterback. This would be a welcomed addition for the defense.
Shamarko Thomas has the look as the strong safety of the future, but that leaves the Steelers without a free safety for this season. They could sign a mid-tier free agent to fill the void, but that would only be a temporary fix. The draft will have to provide the long-term answer.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the top safety in the draft and would be an ideal option with the 15th pick in the draft. He has terrific size at 6’1” and 208 pounds and has the ability to defend against the run and pass.
Without a definitive starter at free safety for 2014, Clinton-Dix could step right into the starting lineup and provide some much-needed young legs in the Steelers secondary.
ESPN.com’s Scott Brown believes he would be the perfect complement to Thomas, providing the Steelers with a strong safety duo for the future.
Calvin Pryor would add another physical presence to Pittsburgh's secondary.
If the Steelers do not select Clinton-Dix, it may be because they like Calvin Pryor even better.
Brent Sobleski of USA Today identified Pryor as one of the fastest risers in this draft. Before all is said and done, he could be the top safety prospect.
Pryor has terrific size at 6’2” and 208 pounds, which aids him in his physical style of play. Simply put, he is a hard hitter—maybe one of the hardest in the draft.
Louisville liked to play Pryor near the line of scrimmage, but he would have to play a more traditional free safety for the Steelers. Here they could use his size to match up against the bigger tight ends and receivers in the game.
Regardless of where they line him up on the field, Pryor would help provide an immediate upgrade in the secondary. Whether it is a big hit or making a play in the passing game, he will be a player opposing offenses must account for.
Given the void at free safety, Pryor has the pedigree that would be able to step in and make an immediate impact as a starter.